Can a former sportswriter be the breakout star of March Madness?

Pete Thamel
·7-min read

Jason Preston wanted so badly to become a sportswriter that he contacted the Detroit Pistons fan site – Piston Powered – prior to his senior year of high school. Preston grew up in Florida, but was in love with the Chauncey Billups-led 2004 NBA title team.

Duncan Smith, who ran the site for the FanSided network, informed Preston that he couldn’t yet write for Piston Powered because he was too young. On the afternoon on his 17th birthday that August, Preston checked back in to see if he could begin blogging for free.

His five months blogging for FanSided coincided with a senior season of high school basketball shrouded in equal parts anonymity and frustration. A 6-foot guard for Boone High School in Orlando who weighed just 140 pounds, Preston averaged a mere two points a game. So he made a decision to join a profession largely staffed by former benchwarmers: Preston enrolled at UCF to become a sportswriter.

Less than four years later, Preston looms as one of the potential breakout stars of this NCAA men's tournament. The Ohio University guard wound up ditching J-School after one summer for prep school, earned a scholarship offer based on his Twitter highlights and is on the cusp of completing the contorted career arc from NBA blogger to NBA player. “They are going to be writing a movie on his life,” Ohio coach Jeff Boals told Yahoo Sports. “This is the American dream.”

So how exactly did Jason Preston go from blogging for Piston Powered to potentially picked by the Pistons – or some other NBA team – this spring? Well, it’s a story that involves perseverance, relentless devotion to basketball and a player confident enough to bet on himself.

Ohio's Jason Preston (0) drives to the basket against Buffalo's Ronaldo Segu (10) during a game on March 13, 2021. (AP)
Ohio's Jason Preston (0) drives to the basket against Buffalo's Ronaldo Segu (10) during a game on March 13, 2021. (AP)

Preston has bloomed into a 6-foot-4 playmaking guard who averages 16.6 per game and is among the top 10 players nationally in assists (7.2). He will be among the players most closely watched by NBA scouts and fans of bracket chaos during the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament.

With No. 13 Ohio playing a No. 4 Virginia program hampered by COVID-19 issues, it’s not far-fetched to imagine Preston leading the Bobcats to an upset.

“He’s got the look, the hair and the game and the backstory,” Boals said. “These are the moments that create legends and legacies.”

Few were proclaiming such potential during Preston’s high school days.

Preston was a shy kid who couldn’t dance, went by the nickname Big Red because of his floppy hair and obsessively studied how Chris Paul and LeBron James worked pick-and-rolls on YouTube.

Preston lost his mother to cancer around his junior year, a traumatic event as she raised him and provided his family structure. He attempted to channel his pain into basketball.

“Jason was never really a talker,” said Kobe Florial, his best friend. “After his mother died, he was a lot more withdrawn. He didn’t really talk much. Basketball was his escape. It was a form of catharsis.”

Preston’s high school output never matched his love for the game. He played for a strong Boone team and didn’t even get off the bench during the final playoff game of his senior year. Preston said he “didn’t see eye-to-eye” with coach David Martinson, in part because the coach got annoyed by Preston’s penchant for throwing jump passes. “He wanted me to stay within the system,” Preston said.

After Preston graduated high school, he enrolled at nearby UCF for summer school to start his journalism studies. But a serendipitous summer AAU tournament, a growth spurt and some world class diligence changed his career destination from the press room to the locker room.

Preston hitched along with some buddies to an AAU tournament in Georgia the summer after his senior year. He nearly forgot his sneakers, which he admits may have prevented him from playing. “If he doesn’t bring his shoes,” laughs Boals, “the kid is at UCF right now playing intramurals.”

A coach from UNC Asheville spied him in the tournament and liked his game, but the school was out of scholarships. Having restored some confidence that he could play in college, Preston felt emboldened by the experience and decided to attend a prep school in Tennessee called Believe Academy against the preferences of those around him back in Orlando.

Even there, Preston struggled to crack the school’s A-team. But he cobbled together enough highlights to get his film out on Twitter.

That April, he sent out a package of highlight clips that caught the attention of former Ohio assistant Will Ryan, the son of Bo Ryan.

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After watching the Twitter clips, Ryan couldn’t believe his eyes. “I haven’t seen a kid pass like this,” he said. “To me he has some Jason Kidd in him.”

Ryan laughs at the serendipity of it all. Not only did Believe Prep have a name that holds the essence of Preston’s story, it’s also in Athens, Tennessee. Ohio University is in Athens, Ohio. “You can’t make it up,” said Ryan, who is now the head coach at Wisconsin-Green Bay.

Soon after Preston arrived, the staff changed a rule barring jump passes. Usually jumping before passing is the shortest way to a turnover, but they didn’t want to inhibit Preston became he had the uncanny ability to make the right decision every time.

A flurry of injuries led to the firing of coach Saul Phillips after Preston’s freshman year, but he wanted to stick around. Boals saw flashes of an elite playmaker because of Preston’s decision making in pick-and-roll situations. Along the way, he grew to 6-foot-4 with a long wingspan and put on more than 20 pounds to check in at 187 pounds.

Fast-forward to Preston’s junior year, and his breakout game came from out-dueling Illinois star Ayo Dosunmu by scoring 31 points in a two-point loss. The game ushered his circuitous path – and big bet on himself – into the mainstream. A Bleacher Report tweet with a TV clip of his story from that game went viral. “All of a sudden, the places he wanted to work at were featuring him,” Florial said. “It was surreal.”

Preston has more assists per game (7.2) than any player in the NCAA tournament. He averaged 22.6 ppg over three Ohio blowouts in the MAC tournament, which Ohio entered as the No. 5 seed.

The precipitous ascent has piqued the interest of NBA scouts, who see him now as a potential second-round pick. One compared his playmaking ability to a “poor man’s LaMelo Ball,” as he’s an intuitive player with the playground flair Ball has flashed in the NBA. Boals stresses that his career is just starting, as NBA teams need to look at him almost as a college freshman because his development began so late.

“This is a big week for him,” an NBA scout said, who noted that foot speed and explosion will be things teams are focused on. “No one has really seen him live.”

His rise, so far, has been stealth enough that Smith, his old editor and current site expert for Hoops Habit, didn’t even realize his old blogger had become a big-time baller. Contributors in the FanSided network can be transient, so Smith never realized the ambitious teenager he knew as “Jay Preston” five years ago was ripping up college basketball.

Smith could only laugh at Preston’s transformation from content creator of articles on Stanley Johnson and Reggie Jackson to the inevitability of Preston being the subject of a pre-draft article this spring.

“The idea of him getting drafted by the Pistons,” Smith said with a laugh. “Can you imagine the full circle that’s been traveled?”

Once Preston got to Ohio and enrolled in the school’s renowned sport management major, he expressed interest in becoming an NBA scout.

Four years after enrolling in one college to study sportswriting and three years after picking a major at another to become a scout, he’ll be analyzed closely by both professions this week. Amid the din of the rise, Preston is hesitant to acknowledge what a great story he’s become.

“I have trouble looking back,” Preston said via Zoom to Yahoo Sports on Wednesday. “I still have a lot more to do. I’m not done yet … We didn’t come here to just play a game. We’re coming to make some noise.”

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